Chris Scott Wilson                   Writer                                             

©2010 C.J.S.Wilson

They saw the smoke first.

   It rose as a smudge into the brassy sky, a column high over the horizon. Josh Sutton cursed into his whiskers, knowing what they were going to find, and snapped the reins over the backs of the four horses. The two leaders pricked up their ears and threw themselves into the traces, lather gathering on their shoulders and manes flying as they galloped. On the driver's seat Josh's curses were lost under the rattling of the harness and the banging and squeaking of the old Concord stagecoach's chassis, but beside him Black Bob McConnell's ten gauge shotgun waved with the motion of the coach while his left hand nervously plucked at his throat where his bandana threatened to choke him. He was young and it was only his third trip.

   ‘What d'you reckon 'tis?’ he stammered in his Irish brogue. The whites of his dark eyes were bright in his dust caked face.

   ‘What'd you say, boy?’ Josh called back, deftly kicking the brake lever as they lurched over a rise.

   ‘D'you reckon?’ Black Bob shouted.

   Josh made a pained face at the boy's stupidity, his leathery cheeks creasing as he squinted into the distance. It was the station all right. Still burning too. Must have just happened, but they hadn't heard any gunfire. Likely anyone there was already dead.

   ‘Is it the relay station?’ Black Bob asked.

   Josh flicked his eyes to the boy's hat which was pushed to the back of his head. ‘Fool boy. If'n you put your damn hat on straight you'd be able to see for yourself.’

   Black Bob pulled down his hat brim so his eyes were shaded. Now he could see. His face paled under its mask of dust.

   ‘What'd it be? Indians?’

   Josh spat and whipped the horses again. ‘One thing for sure, it ain't a cook-out party.’ Neither of them said more as the coach raced toward the small knot of buildings that weren't yet burned out. As they neared, the horses slowed and Josh miserably considered the rest of the journey to El Paso, another thirty odd miles with a winded team. It wasn't going to be much of a joke.

He hauled back and kicked on the brake lever. Gratefully the horses came to a standstill, warily eyeing the smoldering relay station. Tired as they were, they fidgeted in their traces. Josh unlimbered his stiff joints and clambered to the ground, but not before he  pulled  his Winchester from beneath the wagon seat. Up top Black Bob's head twisted as though it was on an axle as he scanned the country, his Adam's apple working nervously in his throat. His hands gripped the shotgun tightly.

   The stagecoach door opened and a handsome woman of thirty, with coils of dark hair pinned under her hat, pushed out into the hard sunlight.

   ‘What was the meaning of that last piece of driving, Mr Sutton?’ she demanded. ‘That coach shakes a person's bones quite enough without ...’ Her voice trailed away as she caught sight of Josh bending over a sprawled figure that appeared to be skewered to the ground by a stake. Her mouth fell open and her eyes strayed to the burning station. ‘What's happened here?’ She began to step forward but wavered when Josh looked up and shook his head.

   ‘Don't come any closer, Mrs Lantz. Ain't fit for a woman's eyes. And don't let your daughter come out.’

   As he spoke a ten-year-old girl poked her head out. ‘Mama? What's the stop for ...’

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Hueco Tanks (Spanish; pronounced Wayco, literally meaning hole) are situated 33 miles north-east of El Paso. Now popular among rock climbers, they are part of the Hueco Tanks State Park, one of the newest in Texas.

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